The Little Community Theater That Could
Mira Theatre Guild, housed in the former Bay Terrace School, is Vallejo’s first and longest running community theatre. Chartered in January of 1947, MIRA received its start in 1943, originally established as part of the Mare Island Recreation Association (MIRA) in order to provide an alternative to the organized sports that were the sole offering. Hal Heaton, vice-president of MIRA, J. Mills Adair, dance instructor in Vallejo, and Henry Oberdorf, along with other Mare Islanders, met off base with the purpose of forming a troupe that would allow people to use their artistic talents. During that same period, Mare Island Naval Shipyard received a bet from the Bremerton Yard, based in Seattle, Washington, that they would be able to sell more war bonds than Mare Island. The Commandeer of Mare Island asked Mr. Heaton if his group would be able to put on a performance to help sell war bonds, and the answer was a resounding yes! With Mr. Oberdorf’s Hollywood contacts, Mr. Adair’s dancing talents, and the support of MIRA through Mr. Heaton, the first “Mare Island Follies” was born. It was such a great success that two more were held in 1944 and 1945. When the war ended, however, Mare Island Recreation Association was no longer interested in sponsoring the theatre guild. The three original members decided in October of 1946 to continue performing and were granted permission through the Yard to continue to use the name MIRA. Using various high schools and the junior college as their stage, MIRA continued to produce outstanding and well received shows: Doughgirls, Blithe Spirit, and Life with Father, to name just a few.
By the late 1950’s, MIRA had outgrown most of the auditoriums in the area and was in search of a building to call its own. Dollie Nunn, performer in the first Mare Island Follies, and MIRA Board member, had her eye on the recently closed Bay Terrace School. The historic Bay Terrace, fashioned in the late-Beaux Arts Classical Revival style, opened in 1918 to serve 180 students in grades one through six as part of the first U.S. Development Corporation planned community on the Pacific Coast. By 1957, the Vallejo School District had outgrown the Bay Terrace School and it was closed. In 1963, MIRA Theatre Guild successfully obtained a lease agreement from the Vallejo School District and for the next four years, continued to perform through out Solano County until their theater, after extensive renovations, was ready in 1967.
For the next twenty-seven years MTG, under the helm of president Dollie Nunn, would continue to serve Vallejo with high-quality performing arts entertainment. Receiving many regional theatrical awards, the Guild was a crown jewel of Vallejo. In the 1980’s, MIRA dropped its Mare Island acronym and was renamed Mira Theatre Guild, this time for the major star in the constellation Cetus. It is interesting to note that in the Latin vernacular, “mira” means “wonderful”: Dollie and the Board chose well.
As the years progressed, MTG continued to hold on to its most devoted people. J. Mills Adair, house director for ten years in the 1950’s, would occasionally come out of retirement to direct or produce plays. Sadly, in 1994, Dollie Nunn passed away, and with no one to step into her shoes, Mira began to lose its way. Despite the devoted supporters of the Guild, the governing Board fell on hard times. Accusations of wrongdoing among Board members resulted in litigation against individuals; however, the not-for-profit corporation itself was not involved. As the result of a restraining order which left the building vacant for two years, the theater was broken into numerous times and many items of value, including the entire electrical system and much of the plumbing, were stolen. Because of the neglect, neighbors began complaining, and the City of Vallejo imposed numerous code enforcement fines. The members of the community, however, would not allow the Bay Terrace Theater to fall into ruin. Like the star, Mira, which flies resolutely through the heavens, the little community theatre that always could is flying once again.
A new Board of directors of experienced business and community development leaders and arts administrators was elected. The Vallejo Heights Neighborhood Association formed The MIRAcle Workers, a group of volunteers comprised of neighborhood residents, long time MTG supporters, and generous business sponsors. Professional actor and Vallejo native Harry Diavitis, long time supporter from the 1960’s, is still active in MTG, most recently directing plays such as Social Security, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and The Diary of Anne Frank, which have all enjoyed strong runs. Most significantly, a larger strategy of developing the Bay Terrace Theater into a community arts center has been created using input from the Guild, the VHNA, educators, youth, and the community at large.
With this goal of community enhancement and promise of an active youth center, The MIRAcle Workers provide a source of sustainable volunteerism. The facade of the building was repaired and repainted; the lobby, north wing hallway, north wing class rooms and the restrooms have been refurbished; electrical, heating, air conditioning and plumbing systems are now functioning; a new alarm system was installed; the south wing has been cleared of debris, and structural repairs are underway. A task force is completing the application process to have the Bay Terrace Theater placed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the first planned community built on the Pacific Coast by the U.S. Development Corporation. The once tarnished gem of Vallejo has begun to shine again.
Although the Mira Theatre Guild and the Bay Terrace Theater are still a few years away from becoming a completed community arts center, it also has a rich history of over sixty years of community involvement. The Guild, its supporters, and its donors will continue to provide a venue to share the creativity and artistic energy of the citizens of Vallejo for many years to come.
Material obtained through Vallejo Times Herald news clippings, personal interviews, and “Curtain’s Up: On Stage in Vallejo’s Theatres 1850 – 1950” by Midge Lund